The Tiwi are today arguably Australia’s most intact Aboriginal group. Certainly, they retain their fiercely possessive attitude toward their land and their culture, and they have a resolute determination to maintain controls over those essentials of Tiwi integrity.’

Peter Forrest (Historian) 1998

The Tiwi occupied their land prior to the last Ice Age, 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. During that Ice Age, the Tiwi Islands were connected to the mainland through what is now Coburg Peninsula in western Arnhem Land. Rapid sea level rises between about 8,000 to 12,000 years ago separated the islands from the mainland and each other, and is described in the legend of Mudangkala. This left the Tiwi people to develop in isolation a distinct culture over thousands of years.  

The first recorded European sighting of the Tiwi Islands was by Dutch navigator Pieter Pieterszoon in 1636. In 1644, another Dutch navigator, Abel Tasman sailed through Dundas Strait between the Tiwi Islands and Coburg Peninsula. Neither of these two explorers established that the two islands were separate land areas.

The first recorded contact was in 1705 when three Dutch ships led by Maarten van Delft spent several months exploring the Tiwi and Coburg coastlines. The ships landed on the north coast of Melville Island at Purrampunarli (Karslake Peninsula), and were confronted by a party of Tiwi men with spears who attacked the landing party. A report The Tiwi Meet The Dutch: The First European Contacts outlines the history of Tiwi contact with European navigators.

Macassan fishermen from Indonesia visited the Northern Territory coastline from about 1650 to the early 1900s. In contrast to many other Aboriginal groups, the Tiwi were consistently hostile to the Macassans.

In 1818, the British navigator Phillip Parker King established that there were two separate land areas, and named them Bathurst Island and Melville Island. King’s exploration led to British interest in establishing a settlement on the north coast of Australia, and in 1824 Fort Dundas was established on Melville Island. The fighting skill and tactics of the Tiwi impressed and deflated the British. Captain Bremer of Fort Dundas ‘…found that the natives’ activity was astonishing and their speed remarkable…. Their prowess, and wonderful precision of the men when using their sticks or Murakoonga thrilled the Englishmen.’ Continuing hostility between the British and the Tiwi, along with other problems associated with the location led to Fort Dundas being abandoned in 1829.

One legacy left behind by the British was a number of Water Buffalo that had been shipped from Timor in 1826 for milk, meat and heavy labour. In 1895, the entrepreneur, EO Robinson, organised a shooting party on Melville Island, and by 1915 over 18,000 buffalo hides had been taken. As an off-season activity and as buffalo numbers declined, interest turned to cutting and milling Karntirrikani, the native Cypress Pine (Callitris intratropica) and three sawmills were established on Melville Island between 1895 and 1916.

In 1910, the Roman Catholic Church was granted 10,000 acres on the south-eastern tip of Bathurst Island and in 1911 Father Francis Gsell established a mission site, first called Nguiu and now known as Wurrumiyanga. The mission and ensuing government policies resulted in the establishment of communities on both islands, which remain to this day as residential centres.